Over the past few months, Carolann Harding has been helping her mother, Gloria Harding, move from her condo into an assisted living apartment in St. John’s. The experience has uncovered just how much stuff a person can accumulate over a lifetime.
“It’s been the process of going through piece by piece, drawer by drawer, box by box, and mom not realizing half the stuff that she had,” she says.
Fortunately, Ms. Harding and her mother were able to go through her accumulated items together, deciding who would get what and what could go. Some are forced to do that difficult task alone in the throes of grief.
“It’s easy to get rid of junk, but the hardest part is going through all the old stuff, finding things from my grandmother when she was a little girl,” says Ms. Harding. “What do you do to honour those memories of your grandparents and your parents and things like Bibles from 1900? That’s the kind of stuff I’m really struggling with. You can get rid of the junk but how do you sort and prioritize the sentimental things?”
The rise of retail and mass production since the end of the Second World War has put more things in the reach of more people than ever before. As a result, baby boomers have a lot of stuff.
Unlike our ancestors, who passed down a few precious family heirlooms from generation to generation, there is just too much for some next-of-kin today.
Tastes have changed and so have living conditions, says Elaine Birchall, a counsellor with expertise in hoarding behaviour and the founder of Birchall Consulting. Most people no longer live in sprawling family homes with basements and garages.
Children and grandchildren don’t want the stuff, she says.
“They have set their environment up with their own aesthetic. They have their own things,” says Birchall, who is also co-author of the book Conquer the Clutter. “They don’t want a lot of the china that you can’t put in the dishwasher. They don’t want the silver that has to be cleaned.”
As awkward as it may be, she encourages families to have open discussions to decide together – the way the Hardings have – who will get what and what will be sold or donated.
“It can be hellish when the parents have passed and now the things are being handed down as part of an estate,” she says. “Grief gets mixed up in that because when you’re in acute grief, it’s almost like this represents the person. It’s not the person.”
Heirs end up feeling obligated to keep things not because they want them or can use them, but because of the stories and memories attached to those things, she says.
“It just complicates grief,” Ms. Birchall says.
A few years ago, Swedish author Margareta Magnusson had a surprise international bestseller with her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, in which she encourages readers to clean out unnecessary belongings “before others have to do it for you.”
Amy Mistal, founder of Soul Ease Professional Organizing in Victoria, B.C., agrees.
“I bring that book a lot actually into my client’s houses to plant the seed early that, whatever you bring into your house, somebody else is one day going to have to clean it up,” she says. “How much stuff do you want to leave for them to have to deal with?”
Ms. Mistal has helped many people whose parents have passed away deal with the estate left behind – and says it can be very hard.
“They definitely feel overwhelmed with all the stuff. Sometimes they don’t know where to start,” she says. “The younger generations are more willing to let go of things. I see older generations have a harder time.”
Ms. Mistal suggests starting by taking stock of what you have: If you haven’t used an item in three months, it should probably go. She provides clients with a “transition box” that will stay in a garage or out-of-the-way place for another few months. If the items remain in the box untouched by then, they can be taken away.
She also suggests letting family members and friends choose a few items they would like to have.
“Once that’s done, it can also help the parents because they know ‘Okay, now they have the items that they want’ and maybe it’s easier for them to let these items go,” she says.
The rest, she says, can be sold, donated or given away. She suggests checking with local antique dealers who might buy or sell the furniture on your behalf.
Often, once people start downsizing, they find it easier as they go, she says.
“They feel lighter, not only in their physical belongings but they feel lighter in their mind,” Ms. Mistal says. “I think overall people feel bogged down and stressed out by the amount of stuff they accumulate.”
For Ms. Harding, downsizing with her mother – a provincial court judge and well-travelled woman – was a valuable journey.
“I’ve gotten to know a little bit more about my mom in looking at her life, in pictures and accomplishments and stuff that I’ve never seen before,” she says.
“There’s a lot that she’s done. I think we forget that our parents are people. It’s kind of giving me a little bit back, going ‘Look, her hair was like this, and she was like this.’ It’s a kind of discovery and it’s neat.”